By Erik Vance
In Douglas Adams’s hilarious classic, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there are several animals said to be cleverer than humans. One – for the sake of irony – was the common lab mouse. The other was a creature that knew about the intergalactic bulldozers that eventually vaporized the planet and tried to warn us of the impending doom:
The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.
It’s a fun punchline but it also reflects a long-held sentiment: that dolphins possess an unusual level of intelligence that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In the popular consciousness it’s taken as a given that dolphins are highly intelligent, have complex behavior, and possess some kind of proto-language ability. However in recent months and years, a sort of backlash – or at least a re-alignment – has been fomenting on the periphery of animal behavior research.
From the hidden life of microbial ecosystems, to cybercrime, to the long chain of consequences set into motion by not washing your hands after using the toilet, Thursday’s TED 2013 spotlight illuminated the unseen systems of our world that impact all of us, sometimes fatally.
“Diarrhea is a weapon of mass destruction,” declared Rose George on TED’s main stage Thursday afternoon.
George is on a crusade for better sanitation, which has brought her from India to Africa to the tony conference space at Long Beach, where she pointedly noted she’d washed her hands after a trip to the toilet. George told the audience that though diarrhea kills a child every 15 seconds and can be easily and cheaply prevented, it rarely receives the attention given to diseases such as malaria, which kills fewer people per year.
George’s book The Big Necessity wades deeply not only into the dangers of poor hygiene but the benefits of waste if managed correctly: “Waste is a resource that we’re wasting,” said George, who added fecal matter can be an “inexhaustible and infinite” energy source.
Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 Feet, The Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.”
I’m king of the world! You are too. We humans—all of us—get props for being the smartest Earthlings. And we’re not merely the smartest. No, we’re the only species worth writing home about; we’re the only truly worth building artificial intelligence to mimic. We’re the smart ones. The rest of the diversity of life may be rich in clever design, like well-engineered tools and gadgets, but they’re not designed to be intelligent. That’s for humans. Rationality and intelligence is something natural selection granted us.
But…what if our Homo sapiens intelligence is radically overrated? What if we’re smarter, but only quantitatively so, not qualitatively? What if many of our Earthly cousins are respectably intelligent after all? More intriguingly, what if there are systematic barriers that lead us to overestimate our true level of intelligence relative to that of others? And, although I won’t get into this here, what are the implications for the rights of chimpanzees, if the chasm between us and them is, instead, a slender fault line? That question has led to a recent movement to ban invasive research on chimpanzees in the U.S., a measure that the EU has already adopted.
Here I’ll discuss just two barriers, a little one and a big one, that conceal how smart we really are—or are not.
Individuality: The Little Bubble